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Laramie Movie Scope: Black Magic

Ground breaking ESPN miniseries basketball, racism doc

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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July 2, 2018 – I generally don't bother reviewing DVD reviews of TV miniseries, let alone shows that aired 10 years ago, but this one is exceptional, and very few online critics have reviewed it.

I bought this two disk DVD set (the first disk holds the entire 224-minute widescreen documentary, while the second disk has extras, such as extended interviews) at a pawn shop for a dollar because the cover looked interesting and I am a basketball fan. I thought I knew a lot about the history of basketball and racism in America, until I watched this documentary, directed by Dan Klores. It is a revelation.

I thought this documentary, the first ever made by the ESPN Films division, would have a lot about Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, the greatest players ever, whom I watched compete in the NBA on a black and white TV when I was young. Instead, this documentary concentrates on black players and coaches who (unlike Russell and Chamberlain) came from America's historically black colleges and universities. These coaches and players paved the way for players like Russell and Chamberlain and those who came later, including Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry and LeBron James.

The film opens with a secret interracial basketball game played in 1944 in North Carolina between a team from North Carolina College for Negroes against an intramural squad from Duke University’s medical school. The game, a first, was illegal at the time. Some of the black players had never even touched a white person before, even to shake hands, such was the level of segregation at that time. The Duke team, considered among the best in the state, was demolished 88-44 by a fast-breaking NCCN team coached by John B. McLendon Jr., who at the time was only 28 years old.

In the 1940s, and even later, basketball was played as a slow, half-court game, even though the game's inventor, James Naismith, intended for it to be a much faster-paced game. McLendon learned this, and much more about basketball, from Naismith himself at the University of Kansas, where Naismith was athletic director and McLendon was a student. McLendon, as a black student, was not allowed to play varsity basketball at the University of Kansas because of segregation-related rules at the time.

McLendon is a key figure in this documentary, who touched many lives, and whose fast-break style of basketball became dominant over the years. McLendon's style of play was so up-tempo that he wanted his team to be able to get a shot off every eight seconds on offense. McLendon's teams were superbly conditioned and frequently ran less fit teams off the court.

Among those who McLendon helped along was a former football player, and novice basketball coach, Clarence Edward “Big House” Gaines. Gaines would later become one of the winningest college coaches in history, with a record of 828–447 at Winston-Salem State. The career of Gaines and the players he coached, including famed NBA player Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, and Cleo Hill, the first African American from a historically black college to be drafted by an NBA team in the first round, are prominently featured in this documentary.

Both McLendon and Gaines would eventually be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but both men, along with their players, battled racism all their lives. McLendon would be prematurely fired from his last job for not achieving instant success as coach of NBA's Denver Nuggets in 1969. Gaines retired under pressure when his basketball team faltered in 1993, despite his historic career record and stature as a coach.

This documentary features both the incredible achievements against long odds, as well as the heartbreaking disappointment and lost opportunities suffered by many over the years. One of the most poignant stories told in the film is about Robert Earl “Butterbean” Love, of Southern University (where his team beat a favored Grambling team led by Hall of Famer Willis Reed). I remember Love as an All Star Chicago Bulls player with an unstoppable fade-away shot. After being forced to retire, due to injury, Love's wife left him and he lost all his money. He had a debilitating stuttering problem, which made it very hard for him to find a job. He finally landed a job as a busboy and dishwasher for $4.45 per hour in the late 1970s.

Eventually, the owner of the restaurant where Love worked promoted him and paid for his speech therapy. When he learned that he would be promoted and that he was being offered speech therapy, Love said in the film that it felt like the weight of the world had dropped from his shoulders. He said, “For the first time I felt that somebody cared about me as a person.” Love would later go on to be a motivational speaker.

Yet another interesting story in the film is that of Richard Ray “Pee Wee” Kirkland, a man with NBA talent, who chose a life of crime at an early age because he thought he could never make much money playing basketball. At Norfolk State University, he teamed up with future NBA star Bob Dandridge. The two teammates would later take very different paths in life, with Kirkland sentenced to prison, while Dandridge went on to be the leading scorer with the NBA champion Washington Bullets in 1978.

The film also spends some time on the historically significant “Orangeburg Massacre” during an anti-segregation protest. South Carolina Highway Patrol officers in Orangeburg, South Carolina, at South Carolina State University, shot and killed three unarmed black men on February 8, 1968. This protest and the killings did not receive anywhere near the national publicity afforded the 1970 Kent State killings of white students during an anti-war protest.

The Orangeburg Massacre, like many other stories in this movie are overlooked and largely forgotten episodes in American history. I learned a lot from this well-crafted and researched documentary film. It is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, Wynton Marsalis and Chris Paul. Noted player and coach John Chaney is featured, and there are interviews with a number of other famous, influential people, including Henry Louis Gates, Alvin Attles, Willis Reed, Charles Oakley and Avery Johnson. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2018 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]